Main content

New York: How are you Doing? - 3 May 2002

Friends and, if I may use the word, fans - friends and fans alike appear to have been taken with the former Mayor Koch's line to strangers when he was off on his morning stroll: "How am I doing?"

Certainly as the dreadful Tuesday morning comes up for its nine-month commemoration I find the question being put to us, or put to us New Yorkers by thoughtful listeners abroad - by those, that is, that have us in mind at all as distinct from the vast majority of Europeans anyway who either reluctantly back President Bush and the war or frankly enjoy a revival of the old anti-American jamboree which down through history has flourished just after the outbreak of a war and always after the end of it.

In the long perspective of history he's simply taken over from Rome and Spain and then for a hundred years or so from Britain, then known as Great Britain.

In other words he's the big boy, the top dog among nations, resented and disliked for that fact alone. We'll get over it.

But in answer to the more friendly question: How are you doing? New Yorkers especially, I have to say that on the surface life for everybody but stockbrokers and travel agents looks again much as it did before the 11th.

But about one age group in the population it happens that this week we can be quite sadly specific.

The New York City Department of Education has just issued a study of the representative cross section of the 1.1 million school students in the city.

The statistical sample, which took a month or two to isolate, was just under 9,000 pupils.

The study itself applied throughout the schools to every age group and it was done by psychologists, public health experts and the National Federal Centre for Disease Control.

The unavoidable finding is that 11 September delivered an emotionally wounding blow to tens of thousands of our city schoolchildren who since then have suffered frequent nightmares, severe unaccounted-for anxiety and notably fear of public places.

This, to be crude about it, could offer one reason why teenage spending has dropped so dramatically.

As for the general adult population we can only revert, as we always do, to the hugely unscientific habit of personal opinion, anecdotal evidence, what we ourselves have noted. Well it did my sister a lot of good.

The universal practice of what the ancient Romans called "the one case inductive method".

Bearing that normal human weakness in mind I have to say that most people I know will not, after a time, deny that the feel of the city, the tenor or routine of their own lives, is not what it was at any time before last September's catastrophe.

Even the most light-hearted people will, if pressed, admit that the one mood they can't maintain forever is being carefree.

There are cheerful, temperamentally upbeat people, luckily I suppose, by the million who have returned to the good cheer of BC - before the catastrophe - but it's because they're deficient in imagination.

They've taken for granted since the late fall say that the attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon was a one-time thing.

Everyone else, I'm afraid, gets a twinge from time to time wondering what and where next.

All the more so since the government has told us finally of two monstrous acts that were foiled only a day or two before their performance.

The man caught crossing over from far western Canada into the state of Washington who was on his way to demolish the Los Angeles airport as a dramatic act to introduce the new millennium.

The other one, at the other geographical extreme, crossed from Canada into New York state on his way south with a plan to bomb the capital when the House of Representatives met for its first new session.

When it didn't happen (we'd never been warned it might happen) then the media were scornful.

Well to cheer everybody up I ought to report from reputable sources that since the fateful 11th, at the very least a dozen horrendous plots against the body and security of this country have been stopped and the plotters taken into custody.

And to the worthy question: Are they being held without trial? I, for one, hope the Government's answer is: You bet. The evidence is being amassed and will be presented in time.

Naturally, though it's something people don't think much about, the government isn't going to publicise all the plots, the targets, the people it has foiled and arrested - any more than the United Nations has ever been praised for the many wars that it's stopped. We blame or pity the UN only for the wars it didn't prevent.

You'll have noticed, though, that both the known terrorists were caught on their way from Canada and it's only very recently been disclosed to the general public by way of an astonishing feature on the Columbia system's television weekly 60 Minutes that for the past - oh certainly 20 years - Canada which, remember, is larger than the United States, has been a vast and fairly safe haven for al Qaeda and most of the terrorist outfits that we know about.

A quarter of a million Canadians commute between Canada and a job in the United States. What job? - we now ask.

And finally after many urgings and warnings the American Government has begged Canada to tighten the border security beyond any strictures they've ever known or practised.

Until a year or so ago Canada was just about the most hospitable country in the world to enter.

It gave a not-very-binding definition of political asylum to people who, with or without evidence, claimed to have been persecuted in their native land.

They came in in their many thousands and right away got jobs or welfare and health benefits.

Most, however, were simply immigrants looking for the better life.

And nobody exposed their passports to photo emission scans or cruder checks.

Incidentally a fake passport is one of the easiest objects in the world to manufacture and I hear that since September 11 the passport manufacturing industry worldwide has been in a bubbling boom. Unlike the dotcom business, it has never burst.

So there has, in the past week or two, been a hot exchange between the immigration services of the two countries, with the United States maintaining that the whole immense continental plate of Canada is peppered with active members of the terrorist groups in the Middle East, mostly, that we've most suffered from, and the Canadians saying that they're on the alert, tightening up, and not to fret.

So, agents of all the known terrorist groups have been spotted in or known to be in Canada.

Once having digested this we now wake up in the morning and just to confuse us we read that the latest outrage was being plotted by two cells - one in Hamburg, another in a tiny town in Spain.

Every day makes me regret a presidential phrase which my daughter regretted in the actual moment it was being spoken, the phrase: "We shall seek out and punish terrorists and the countries that harbour them."

When the president said that a few days after the apocalypse he really meant Afghanistan and possibly the neighbouring countries including Pakistan, where terrorists hide or camp.

Ah for the age of innocence. We now find that the most murderous groups are camped or hiding or plotting in almost any country you care to mention, including most of our 35 allies.

Enough loathed melancholy, hail the flowers that bloom in the spring.

In a favourite magazine of mine of long ago there used to be a feature called "Notes from all over", which roped in comments on newsworthy topics that hadn't been forgotten but rather crowded out week after week by the particular obsessions of the day.

I have a couple of items, each of which could have been talked about at profitable length. They each point a moral - the same moral.

First, the last federal government order has just been issued compelling a small town in the Carolinas to use bussing as a way of mixing white and black children in school or to school.

The first order came almost 50 years ago, not long after the 1954 desegregation ruling of the Supreme Court.

What could be a more reasonable, fair, compassionate way of enforcing integration?

It's been generally a social disaster, not only fractioning community life, dividing black society into mutually antagonistic groups, upsetting the generations in black families, producing a continuous flight of whites to suburbs too rich for blacks to live in, abandoning the broken-down inner cities to poor blacks and the drug scene.

Second, no state is tougher on cigarette smokers than California. Smoking is forbidden in all public places - transport, restaurants, on and on - and California has slapped bigger and bigger taxes on cigarettes.

One unanticipated result: a children's aid society which has done much good work with the disabled and the homeless is going broke because its funding comes mainly from tobacco taxes.

But the effect of the high taxes and the prohibitions has been to reduce smoking everywhere drastically and shrink the tobacco revenues. Fewer than one Californian in four smokes.

What is the common moral?

Well I'd say it shows once again there's a lot in Franklin Roosevelt's line that government is not what would work in a perfect society, it's the art of the possible.

Of course there's also that other maxim worth recalling: no good deed ever goes unpunished.


Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC. Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.